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Man who claims he was abused by priest when he was 13 says diocese has dragged its feet over his complaint

'Victim' left deeply hurt over parish collection for alleged abuser and failure to interview him despite investigation

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Denis Cairns from Londonderry who claims he was abused by a priest

Denis Cairns from Londonderry who claims he was abused by a priest

Denis Cairns from Londonderry who claims he was abused by a priest

A man who claims he was abused by a Catholic priest when he was 13 has hit out at how the church handled the complaint.

Denis Cairns said he was left deeply hurt after learning that his alleged abuser's parish collected money for the priest last Christmas, seven months after he was stood down from his duties while the church investigated the allegation.

Mr Cairns, who lives in Londonderry, alleges he was abused in 1992 by a priest visiting from a parish in the Nottingham Diocese.

He said the collection, along with a weekly request in the priest's parish newsletter asking parishioners to pray for his alleged abuser, who is now ill, were deeply hurtful.

He is also critical of how the diocese's Bishop, Patrick McKinney, handled the case.

Mr Cairns (40), who is married with two children, first reported his alleged abuse to police in Derry in 1997 when he was 18. He had seen the same priest at a function in the city with a young boy and was concerned for the child's welfare.

After investigation, a decision not to prosecute was taken due to a lack of evidence - it was Mr Cairns' word against that of his alleged abuser.

It wasn't until 2014 that Mr Cairns contacted the Diocese of Derry and disclosed what happened to him.

He was contacted by the diocese's safeguarding officer, who informed her counterpart in Nottingham.

At this time the Derry Diocese became aware that, in 2002, Nottingham Diocese carried out an investigation into the allegations made by Mr Cairns and "supervised" and "monitored" the priest for a two-year period.

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Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin

Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin

The priest had been interviewed by the RUC at his parish in Nottingham in 1997. They also spoke to the Bishop at the time. This is when the diocese first became aware of the allegation.

The diocese investigated in 2002 in response to the publication of the landmark Nolan report in 2001. The priest was not stood down from his duties at this time. The diocese did not contact Mr Cairns as part of this investigation. Files held by the Derry Diocese and Nottingham Diocese about Mr Cairns' allegation were released to him at his request.

The Belfast Telegraph has a copy of these files and other correspondences including details of a meeting between Mr Cairns and the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin.

Among these is a letter dated April 2019 from Bishop McKinney, which was read out at all masses in the parish where the priest served, informing them of the allegations.

The priest was already absent from his parish at the time because he had returned to his home in Northern Ireland - where he is now residing - for chemotherapy after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer.

In his statement, Bishop McKinney wrote: "Your parish priest has been absent from the parish for a long time due to his illness and we continue to pray for his recovery.

"However, he is unable at present to act as your parish priest for another reason. An allegation has been recently made against him of historic sex abuse.

"Due to the serious nature of the allegation, I have issued a decree which suspends him from all public ministry until an investigation can be done.

"It may seem cruel to begin this proceeding against someone who is seriously ill, but the Church must and does take allegations of this nature very seriously."

Mr Cairns said the words used by Bishop McKinney showed little concern for the toll on his health, particularly his mental health, which left him suicidal many times.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Cairns said: "I have lived with this on my mind 24 hours a day, seven days a week since I was 13 and I am now 40.

"The pain, anger, hurt, frustration and flashbacks never go away and at times I couldn't bear it and attempted to take my own life. I did that eight times, most recently last year.

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Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown

Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown

"In his statement, the Bishop of Nottingham implied that investigating the priest at a time when he was not in good health was cruel but there was no compassion or understanding for the effect on my health - the effect on my mental health has and continues to be enormous, but that doesn't seem to count.

"This has been a long and traumatic journey for me, but last year I thought I was finally going to see a way in which I could get on with my life when the Bishop of Nottingham came to Derry to speak with me at the request of the Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown.

"We met in Bishop Donal's house and, after listening to my story, he told me he would begin a canonical investigation process.

"Part of that process meant my abuser was not allowed to carry out duties as parish priest nor contact parishioners in that capacity, but I discovered just last week that parishioners had been given an update on his health and that a collection taken up in his parish (at Christmas 2019) had been passed to him.

"This caused me unimaginable anguish. I was distraught beyond belief because it comes after I repeatedly asked that a weekly notice in this priest parish newsletter which asks people to pray for him is stopped, but my request has repeatedly been ignored."

Mr Cairns said he hoped the canonical investigation will, at its conclusion, allow him to move on with his life, which he says has been dominated by the impact of his alleged abuse.

He continued: "What happened to me when I was 13 has had a devastating effect on my life since. My abuser told me not to tell anyone what happened because I wouldn't be believed and I saw that he was right about that - who would take the word of a 13 year-old boy against that of a priest?

"I told no one until the day (in 1997) I saw this same priest at a function in Derry with a young boy and my blood ran cold because I feared he was doing to this boy what he did to me.

"I confronted the priest and he told me the boy was a 'friend' from his parish in England and that his parents had allowed him to bring the boy to Derry.

"The next day, I went to the police in Derry and reported what had happened to me, but that came to nothing because it was basically my word against his.

"It wasn't until 2014 that I contacted the Derry Diocese and told them I had been abused.

"The safeguarding officer contacted me then and she also contacted Nottingham but I didn't know this until I had my files released.

"I disclosed my abuse to a priest in Derry again in 2018 and, again, the safeguarding person got in contact with me only this time it was a different person, Noel O'Donnell.

"He listened to me and arranged for me to meet Bishop McKeown, who also listened to me and told me they believed me. This was all I wanted - to be believed.

"The Derry Diocese and Bishop Donal have been very good to me and have supported me when I needed it.

"Bishop Donal even suggested it would be good for me to meet Archbishop Martin before he went off to the Vatican seminar on clerical abuse which I was delighted to do."

Entries in the Derry Diocese files made by Mr O'Donnell echo Mr Cairns' sentiments.

One dated January 30, 2019 reads: "One of the most important outcomes of the meeting was that Archbishop Martin clearly told Denis that he believed him." Another dated February 18 reads: "Denis does take comfort from the fact that he is believed by Archbishop Martin, Bishop McKeown and me (Mr O'Donnell)."

Bishop McKeown also organised and facilitated a meeting between Mr Cairns and the Bishop of Nottingham in March 2019 which took place in his home but for which he was not present.

Mr Cairns continued: "After the meeting with Bishop McKinney, it was agreed they would provide a care plan for me which included providing support and giving me regular updates on how the investigation is progressing.

"Very early on in the investigation, two canon lawyers came to Derry and interviewed me - that was almost a year ago.

"But despite me asking Nottingham Diocese if my abuser had been interviewed, I am still in the dark.

"It seems to me Nottingham diocese is dragging its heels on the investigation because this priest is so ill and they are waiting on him to die so he can go to his grave with his reputation intact."

A spokesman for Nottingham Diocese confirmed the priest at the centre of Mr Cairn's allegation has not yet been interviewed by canon lawyers - almost a year after the process began.

The Belfast Telegraph has also learned that the boy Mr Cairns saw the priest with in Derry in 1997 has been identified.

The Nottingham Diocese does not know if he has been contacted by the safeguarding team, police or social services.

The spokesman said: "The priest is seriously ill and many of his parishioners would find it cruel that disciplinary proceedings had been begun against him while he was being treated for various cancers; nevertheless, the Bishop's concern that justice be done and be seen to be done meant that he began those proceedings which are ongoing.

"The priest cannot function as a priest pending the outcome of those proceedings. We understand that seeing prayers for (the priest) would cause hurt to Mr Cairns; however, this was obviously never the intention. The editor of the parish bulletin is no longer fulfilling that role."

The Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown, was contacted prior to publication. He declined to comment.

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